Saturday, 10 November 2007


And so we wave farewell to Dr Debby Reynolds. We wish her well. We wish her a better future. We wish ourselves a better future. But those choosing Chief Veterinary Officers seem to be searching for special skills. The last thing wanted in a CVO, it seems, is the dangerous ability to empathise with animals and people. Such a weakness could jeopardise the "disease control strategy" which, according to the departing Debby, "is the best in the world".
(These really were the valedictory words of the CVO. An inability to engage with reality would appear to be another characteristic much prized.)

In 2001, the late, great Professor Fred Brown O.B.E was scathing of another CVO, Jim Scudamore. He said of the poor man that he would be better off doing a different job; "gardening, for example". Fred was one of the best British scientists ever - a brilliant and kindly searcher and researcher of the old school where what mattered was the truth. One of my best memories of him was while we were going through the obstacle course of security at (the so well named) Portcullis House. We were on our way to talk to David Curry, the Chair of the EFRA committee. While we waited, Professor Brown was telling me how Pirbright had been 'world class' precisely because it had been, in its heyday, a public service laboratory. It existed in order to serve the public through science.
And that pretty well summed up Fred Brown too.

There wasn't much he didn't know about Foot and Mouth, but as he wryly remarked,
"scientists know more and more about less and less while politicians know less and less about bugger all."
The EFRA Committee is that All-Party Select Committee whose job includes overseeing DEFRA. Our hopeful little band thought that if the Chairman heard Fred talking with such competent enthusiasm about the elegant new ARS Tetracore FMD PCR device he could hardly fail to use his influence to get the tests trialled and then adopted for use in the UK. Unfortunately, this did not happen.

That 2001 test could, (as the 2007 machines can do even better and more cheaply,) check whether animals were infected with foot and mouth before clinical signs were apparent. There was no fear of cross contamination because of the self sealing cartridge. Proper RT-PCR testing could be done on the farms themselves and give reliable results within the hour.

Had the EFRA Committee put all its clout behind on-site PCR, virtually none of the bloody and senseless killing that was going on then and has been going on since need have taken place.

Early in the 2001 crisis a question had been put to Sir David King, one of the chief architects of the UK's kill them first, ask afterwards policy:
If this machine is as accurate as Professor Brown told me, he said it is 99 per cent accurate, could it not have saved this huge, vast, expensive cull of mainly healthy animals?
It was the best question of 2001 - but it got the wrong answer.

King's waffling reply can be read here. He failed to understand the complexities of what the US were offering for trial but implied that he, David King, naturally, knew all about these machines. He defined the term "PCR" for the benefit of the assembled company. He implied that Pirbright (and himself) knew best. The suggestion that the ARS Tetracore kit worked better than anything the UK could produce for itself was, he implied, nonsense. And cross contamination most certainly would be a problem.

And after the carnage, Sir David King's contempt continued unabated. The following December, after literally millions of healthy animals had been slaughtered in very nasty circumstances indeed, Britain's Chief Scientific Advisor congratulated himself on a job well done and told the Today Programme "we did attempt to validate Fred Brown's test"

No. Professor King is mistaken. What appeared in the Veterinary Record on 6 October 2001 (and it is interesting that it no longer seems to appear in the Vet Rec archive): as "Evaluation of a portable, 'real-time' PCR machine for FMD diagnosis", by Alex Donaldson and his team, was a fiasco because it tested the body of the machine but with the wrong reagents. Which is rather like testing a motor bike after filling its tank with lemonade. "The reagents used in the assay were recommended by the manufacturer of the instrument" claimed the authors - but they were not recommended by the manufacturer, only by a rival company who didn't know what reagents were needed any more than Pirbright did and were only guessing. The paper said that the machine gave "poor results" and that, as far as David King was concerned, was that.

Had it been properly trialled with the correct reagents - in other words, had the US offer been courteously accepted - the story of FMD in 2001 would be very different.

And in 2007, had such machines been used, with or without vaccination, the grief of these past endless weeks could have been spared too. But, because of the intransigence of David King, Debby Reynolds and the yes men of DEFRA and elsewhere, we had neither.

In anywhere other than DEFRAworld, that virus escape from Pirbright would have heralded a real time exercise in vaccination of such importance that farmers and countrymen would have been united in their gratitude. The wretched virus would have been stopped efficiently in its tracks and, to make assurance doubly sure, portable RT-PCR diagnostic machines, operated by anyone after the most cursory training, would have been able to check the oral and nasal swabs of any nearby herds with very little need for blood to be taken. The whole thing would have been over within days.

Why do we go on banging on about all this? Why can we not just let it go?
There are two reasons. The first is that DEFRA still seems unaware of the importance of this technology - in spite of the UK's contribution to the development of new versions such as the Enigma machine at Porton and the Smiths Detection machine These machine must by now be nearly ready for commercial buyers. Some would say it is precisely for this reason that DEFRA has been waiting; so that the profits will come to the UK. Little hope. Small, efficient, cheap machines from elsewhere are on the way and they will be unstoppable. But it is heartbreaking to know that in the former Soviet Bloc countries, machines as small as toasters are already being used routinely on farms to detect and track pathogens with RT-PCR. In those countries viruses such as FMD and Bluetongue can be detected and stopped before they spread and cause the sort of damage that they wreak in Europe.

The second reason is that in a decent society we should expect accountability in our leaders. Animal Health policy in the UK has very little to do with health and even less to do with concern for animals. It is all about maintaining control. Those who have dragged farmers and animals into an unnecessary nightmare have never been accountable, they have never been sacked, they have never even apologised. On the contrary, most of them have been promoted and covered in honours or at least, as DEFRA might put it, " with plaudits".

It is time they were shown the door, leaving animal health to those who would care about animals and about their health. The blessings of modern veterinary science, the boon of technology and vets worth the name should be in charge.

And all the rest should go on gardening leave.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

No one will enter my farm to kill my animals...

Brave, admirable, doomed words.
"If the veterinary service does not show me in writing whose animals actually have this disease, no one will enter my farm to kill my animals,”
Farmers in Cyprus are tearful, angry and disbelieving of the nightmare into which they have been plunged. Brussels is telling them to kill their animals - they want to know which ones for why should they kill healthy animals? Brussels is telling them to comply with the rules - they want to know why they should. Brussels thinks that compensation will silence the outrage - but one farmer,fighting back tears during the House Agriculture Committee hearing on Monday, said his livestock were like his children:
"They offered me £150 for every adult sheep… and £20 for every lamb [to be culled]. I said to them, ‘I wouldn’t even accept £1,150.
Then we sat down and looked at another price estimate. I told them to get up and leave and not to come back. The next day they returned, and this time they didn’t even bother to talk to me or ask me to sign anything. They just went ahead and executed the animals.."
The Cyprus Mail reports that the head of the Veterinary Services, Charalambos Kakoyiannis, appears to be as appalled as the farmers.
"For better or worse, we are in the EU now. I sympathise with your cries of distress and I know you feel as if their animals are like members of your families".

"For better - for worse"? Trusting Cyprus entered willingly into that marriage of 2004. But after all the optimism of the wedding the EU mask drops to reveal something rather worse than a skull. The farmers have no power to resist. Blood-letting and grief has been forced upon them this week by political expediency, not by foot and mouth disease. Now that modern science has provided us with potent inactivated vaccines; now that technical ingenuity has given us the ability - on-site -to diagnose active virus within minutes rather than hours, there is no excuse for the kill first, ask afterwards policy. For what happened in the killing fields of Surrey there was no veterinary or scientific basis; there is none for what is happening under the autumn sun of Cyprus. Anyone who pretends otherwise is a charlatan. All that is lacking is political will.

Emergency vaccination has been used successfully right across the globe in recent years. It works. There has never been a single reported case in the field of an FMD vaccinated animal spreading disease. And the irony is that emergency vaccination is actually permitted by Brussels. But Brussels rules are in place to protect that talisman of protectionism, the status of being "FMD free without vaccination" - so governments will "consider" it and do nothing.

Fotis Fotiou, the Cypriot Agriculture Minister told the farmers that
"any notion that Brussels deliberately wanted to destroy the Cypriot livestock industry was fantastical."
Difficult to think of a more effective way had it been so.
Farmers in the UK are now looking at the destruction of their industry - not because of animal disease but because of the supposed cure for it:Zones and restrictions imposed on us by the EU and by a Ministry that will go to all lengths to enforce rules that are mad, bad, cruel, ignorant and senseless.

The battle for a humane animal health policy goes way beyond a fuzzy concern for animal welfare. It is a battle about personal control and responsibility being wrested away from us. The justification for the removal of our freedoms is - as always - that it is for our ultimate good. It is the ultimate cynicism of those high on the drug of power. This is a battle worth fighting.

Yet it is almost too painful. To report on the calamity unfolding in Cyprus and reading the words of the farmers bring back with such grim clarity the sense of desperation and trauma that the killing policy has brought to us in the past decade. It is a recurring nightmare. We feel physically sick. We want to turn away. We want to drown it out, forget it and stop all this. And that is precisely why we must go on.

(Painting by FMD Vaccination campaigner, John English - now sadly no longer with us. He was always much admired in the Forest of Dean for his love of pigs and cattle and his ability to catch a moment. The painting is a legend. It was with great sadness we heard of his recent and sudden death.)

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

"It seems that we are obliged to kill ..."

Poor Cyprus. It has only been a member of the EU since 2004. They are now suffering their first foot and mouth outbreak since 1964 and many there must be aghast to see how membership of the EU brings with it all the miseries that farmers in the UK have suffered - stringent movement restrictions , surveillance, "biosecurity measures" and, worst of all, the forced killing of their farm animals. Hardly surprising that a crowd of angry farmers on Sunday blocked entry to the two farms where officials wanted to kill the animals. It was useless. The cull went ahead yesterday.

The Cypriot Agriculture Minister, Fotis Fotiou, showed in a radio statement his shock at the measures insisted upon by the EU:
"It seems that we are obliged to kill livestock from the three remaining farms as well, which represents around 1,500 animals. Nobody can rule out the culling of many more animals if other test results come back from London indicating the disease has spread."
After the false reassurances of an earlier all-clear at the end of October, the UK has now declared that the latest samples are positive for serotype O of the virus - and all the miserable clanking machinery of the EU has moved into place; the Union has banned all exports of fresh meat, live animals and milk products from the country; the Cypriot authorities have already killed all the sheep in the affected flocks; a 3km protection zone and 10km surveillance zone have been set up around the holding - and thousands more animals are in the firing line, just as in the UK in 2001 and in this miserable year.

The President of Cyprus, Tassos Papadopoulos, has told islanders (see report) that
"this is a sacrifice that must be made if the broader dangers for the stockbreeding industry of the island are to be tackled."
A sacrifice? But this too was the hollow consolation felt by the farmers in Surrey,who thought that their reluctant countenancing of the killing of their own animals would save other farmers from the same misery. The Emersons, when their animals - pigs, sheep and, worst of all, the breeding cows, all named, that they cared for so much - were all killed "on suspicion", consoled themselves that theirs would be the last farm. But at least 33 holdings in Surrey (not merely the 8 "infected premises" as officialdom would have people believe) suffered the same fate. Without even having on-farm tests to prove the presence of disease, all the Emerson's free range animals - even the two pet goats - were killed. It took hours to kill the pigs and the cows. It continued well into the night under arc lamps. Not one of the animals was subsequently found to have been infected with Foot and Mouth.
I challenge anyone to listen to the BBC's On Your Farm and fail to be moved by the courage, dignity and unsentimental sadness of this couple.

The right and honourable method of dealing with this disease is to use the blessing of modern virology: vaccination. But, for reasons one can only guess at, the UK would not use the on-site tests that could have saved the animals on all those premises that were summarily condemned by being designated "dangerous contacts" and "slaughtered on suspicion". It is despicable. The Emersons are too much affected by the death of the animals they had cared for to continue to keep breeding cows. And in spite of her stoicism, going into their eerily deserted pig barn with the interviewer proved too much for Mrs Emerson. The UK policy depends on the kindly decency of such farmers - and it lets them down.

And now we see the same misery descending on Cyprus.

What heartbreaking nonsense this all is. Foot and Mouth is not a terrifying killer. It is a disease where symptoms can be of varying degrees of severity. In Surrey they were so mild that many animals had recovered before being detected as having had the disease - but that recovery did not prevent the authorities from killing not only those animals but literally hundreds of others nearby. Yet in the EU and also in the US the downright lie persists that there are no vaccines that can provide an alternative to such indiscriminate killing.

Modern potent vaccines can be used to protect a nation's livestock. Instead, by making vaccination the poor relation in disease control, the EU continues to treat FMD as if it were an invincible terror necessitating the most draconian measures. While officials "stamp out" the disease they also stamp on the feelings and rights of the farmers and kick asunder all the ethics of humane, science- based veterinary care.

When the desperate idiocy of all this is finally put right and people look back on it all they will hardly be able to believe that we were capable of such callousness. As Alan Bennett says of the 2001 mass culling (Untold Stories p293):
"In fifty years' time I am sure that we will not handle animals the way we do now and to succeeding generations our behaviour will seem as barbarous as bear baiting...."